Lenin & the Vanguard Party

The 1905 Revolution




During 1904, Russian defeats in the war with Japan provoked a surge of liberal bourgeois opposition to the tsarist autocracy. This significant change in the Russian political scene deepened the differences between Menshevism and Bolshevism. Assigning the liberals the leading role in the coming anti-tsarist revolution, the Mensheviks sought to encourage the liberal opposition by toning down criticism of them. The Mensheviks’ conciliatory attitude to the liberals marked a further regression down the same path as the Economists, restricting the social-democratic party to the defense of the sectional interests of the Russian proletariat.

Lenin sharply attacked this liberal-conciliationist policy in his November 1904 article, "The Zemstvo Campaign and Iskra’s Plan," which opened up a new, more profound phase in the Bolshevik-Menshevik conflict. (The Zemstvos were local government bodies through which the liberals sought to reform tsarism.) The heart of Lenin’s polemic is this:

"Bourgeois democrats are by their very nature incapable of satisfying these [revolutionary-democratic] demands, and are therefore, doomed to irresolution and half-heartedness. By criticizing this half-heartedness, the Social-Democrats keep prodding the liberals on and winning more and more proletarians and semi-proletarians, and partly petty bourgeois too, from liberal democracy to working-class democracy....

"The bourgeois opposition is merely bourgeois and merely an opposition because it does not itself fight, because it has no program of its own that it unconditionally upholds, because it stands between the two actual combatants (the government and the revolutionary proletariat with its handful of intellectual supporters) and hopes to turn the outcome of the struggle to its own advantage."

This difference over the role of the liberal bourgeoisie in the anti-tsarist revolution was the main issue at the rival Menshevik and Bolshevik gatherings in April 1905. From their premise that the liberal bourgeois party must come to power with the overthrow of absolutism, the Mensheviks derived the position that the social-democratic party, no matter how strong, ought not to militarily overthrow the tsarist government. This policy of passive expectancy and liberal tailism was adopted in resolution form at the April Menshevik conference:

"Under these conditions, social democracy must strive to retain for itself, throughout the entire revolution, a position which would best afford it the opportunity of furthering the revolution, which would not bind its hands in the struggle against the inconsistent and self-seeking policies of the bourgeois parties, and which would prevent it from losing its identity in bourgeois democracy.

"Therefore, social democracy should not set itself the goal of seizing or sharing power in the provisional government but must remain a party of the extreme revolutionary opposition."
—Robert H. McNeal, ed., Decisions and Resolutions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1974)

Lenin counterposed to the Menshevik conception the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry," a concept most extensively set forth in his July 1905 pamphlet, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. Lenin began from the premise that the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying through the historic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. However, he believed that a peasant-based radical populist movement could and would give rise to a mass revolutionary-democratic party. (Significantly Lenin did not consider the Social Revolutionaries such a party. He regarded them as an "intellectualist" grouping, still addicted to terrorism.) The alliance between the peasant-based revolutionary-democratic and the proletarian social-democratic party, including a coalition "provisional revolutionary government," would overthrow absolutism and carry through a radical democratic program—the "minimum" program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP). The operational core of Lenin’s strategy was adopted at the all-Bolshevik Third RSDRP Congress:

"Depending upon the alignment of forces and other factors which cannot be precisely defined in advance, representatives of our party may be allowed to take part in the provisional revolutionary government so as to conduct a relentless struggle against all counter-revolutionary attempts and to uphold the independent interests of the working class."

In developing the concept of the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship," Lenin was primarily concerned with motivating an active military and political role for Russian social democracy in the revolution. As to the future fate of the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship," Lenin is deliberately vague; it is clear he did not regard it as a stable form of class rule. In Two Tactics he asserts:

"The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry is unquestionably only a transient, temporary socialist aim, but to ignore this aim in the period of a democratic revolution would be downright reactionary."

The future evolution of Russian society from the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship" would be determined by the balance of class forces not only in Russia but throughout Europe. Lenin’s formulation is therefore an algebraic conception. In its most revolutionary outcome it would shade over toward Trotsky’s "permanent revolution": a radical democratic revolution in Russia sparks the European proletarian revolution, which allows the immediate socialist revolution in Russia. In the face of triumphant reaction the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship" becomes a revolutionary episode, somewhat akin to the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793 or Paris Commune of 1871, which makes possible the stabilization of normal bourgeois-democratic rule.

By early 1905, the issue of the political dynamic of the revolution had superseded the narrow organizational question as the central conflict between Bolshevism and Menshevism. In fact, the criticism of the Mensheviks adopted at the April 1905 Bolshevik congress did not even mention the issue which caused the original split. Rather it condemned the Mensheviks for economism and liberal tailism:

"... a general tendency to belittle the significance of consciousness, which they subordinate to spontaneity, in the proletarian struggle.... In tactical matters [the Mensheviks] manifest a desire to narrow the scope of the party work; speaking out against the party pursuing completely independent tactics in relation to the bourgeois-liberal parties, against the possibility and desirability of our party undertaking an organizational role in the popular uprising, and against the party’s participation under any conditions in a provisional democratic-revolutionary government."

As is well known, not all the leading Mensheviks of 1903 became the liberal-tailists of 1905. During 1904 the young Trotsky developed the theory of the "permanent revolution" as applied to Russia. Due to Russia’s uneven development, no revolutionary bourgeois-democratic force, including a peasant-based radical populist party, would emerge to overthrow absolutism. In carrying through the anti-absolutist revolution, the proletarian party would be forced to take state power and also to introduce the beginnings of socialization. Unless the Russian proletarian revolution extended itself to advanced capitalist Europe, the backward workers state would inevitably be overthrown by imperialist reaction. Trotsky’s "permanent revolution" position placed him to the left of the Leninists on the question of revolutionary strategy, but, except for a historic moment in 1905, he remained an isolated figure in the pre-war Russian social-democratic movement.

Revolution and Mass Recruitment

The differences with the Mensheviks over the nature of the Russian revolution weakened, but did not eliminate, the Bolshevik conciliators, who favored reunification of the RSDRP. However, the revolutionary upsurge produced a new division within the Bolshevik camp, and this time Lenin found himself taking an unfamiliar position on the organizational question.

The mass radicalization, particularly after Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, produced tens of thousands of militant young workers who were willing to join a revolutionary socialist party, to join the Bolsheviks. However, habituated to a small underground network, many Bolshevik "committeemen" (the cadres who had built hard-core social-democratic cells in the difficult conditions of clandestinity) resisted a radical change in the nature of their organization and its functioning. They opposed a mass recruitment policy and insisted on continuing a lengthy period of tutelage as a precondition for membership.

Lenin adamantly opposed this apparatus conservatism and sought to transfonn the Bolsheviks from an agitational organization into a mass proletarian party. As early as February 1905, in an article "New Forces and New Tasks," Lenin expressed concern that the radicalization of the masses was far outstripping the growth of the Bolshevik organization:

"… we must considerably increase the membership of all Party and Party-connected organizations in order to be able to keep up to some extent with the stream of popular revolutionary energy which has been a hundredfold strengthened. This, it goes without saying, does not mean that consistent training and systematic instruction in the Marxist truths are to be left in the shade. We must, however, remember that at the present time far greater significance in the matter of training and education attaches to the military operations, which teach the untrained precisely and entirely in our sense. We must remember that our ‘doctrinaire’ faithfulness to Marxism is now being reinforced by the march of revolutionary events, which is everywhere furnishing object lessons to the masses and that all these lessons confirm precisely our dogma....

"Young fighters should be recruited more boldly, widely and rapidly into the ranks of all and every kind of our organizations. Hundreds of new organizations should be set up for the purpose without a moment’s delay. Yes, hundreds; this is no hyperbole, and let no one tell me that it is ‘too late’ now to tackle such a broad organizational task. No, it is never too late to organize. We must use the freedom we are getting by law and the freedom we are taking despite the law to strengthen and multiply the Party organizations of all varieties." [emphasis in original]

The conflict between Lenin’s mass recruitment policy and the conservative committeemen was one of the most heated issues of the April 1905 Bolshevik congress. Lenin’s motion on the subject was actually voted down by a slim majority. This motion calls upon the Bolsheviks to

"… make every effort to strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses of the working class by raising still wider sections of the proletarians to full Social-Democratic consciousness, by developing their revolutionary Social-Democratic activity, by seeing to it that the greatest possible number of workers capable of leading the movement and the Party organizations be advanced from among the mass of the working class to membership on the local centers and on the all-Party center through the creation of a maximum number of working-class organizations adhering to our Party...."
—"Draft Resolution on the Relations Between Workers and Intellectuals Within the Social-Democratic Organizations," April 1905

In opposing a mass recruitment policy, the conservative Bolshevik committeemen quoted What Is To Be Done? with its line of "the narrower, the better." Lenin replied that the 1902 polemic sought to guide the formation of an oppositional grouping within a politically heterogeneous movement of underground propaganda circles. The tasks facing the Bolshevik organization in early 1905 were, to say the least, different.

Lenin was absolutely right to oppose a conservative attitude toward recruitment during the revolution of 1905. If the tens of thousands of subjectively revolutionary, but politically raw, young workers who came to the fore were not recruited to the Bolsheviks, they would naturally join the opportunist Mensheviks, the radical-populist Social Revolutionaries or the anarchists. The revolutionary party would be deprived of a large and important proletarian generation. Without mass recruitment the Bolshevik Party would have been sterilized during the Revolution and thereafter.

Another aspect of the Bolshevik committeemen’s apparatus conservatism was a sectarian attitude toward the mass organizations thrown up by the revolution—the trade unions and, above all, the soviets. The key St. Petersburg Soviet [council] of Workers’ Deputies originated in October 1905 as a centralized general strike committee. While the Mensheviks embraced the trade unions and soviets precisely because of their loose, politically heterogeneous nature, a section of the Bolshevik leadership distrusted such organizations as competitors to the party.

Thus in October 1905 the Bolshevik Central Committee in Russia (Lenin was still in exile) addressed a "Letter to All Party Organizations" which stated:

"Every such organization represents a certain stage in the proletariat’s political development, but if it stands outside Social Democracy, it is, objectively, in danger of keeping the proletariat on a primitive political level and thus subjugating it to the bourgeois parties."
—quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, Vol. I: Building the Party (1975)

The Bolsheviks’ initial sectarian attitude toward the soviets permitted the Mensheviks to play a leading role in them by filling a political vacuum. Thus Trotsky, as head of the St. Petersburg Soviet, emerged as the most prominent revolutionary socialist in 1905.

Just as he struggled for a mass recruitment policy, so Lenin intervened to correct a sectarian abstentionist attitude toward the soviets. In a letter to the Bolshevik press entitled "Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies" (November 1905) he wrote:

"… the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the Party? I think it would be wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Party. The only question—and a highly important one—is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party.

"I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party." [emphasis in original]

Like Trotsky, Lenin recognized in the soviets the organizational basis for a revolutionary government:

"To my mind, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, as a revolutionary center providing political leadership, is not too broad an organization but, on the contrary, a much too narrow one. The Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and by all means enlist to this end the participation of new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all, from the sailors and soldiers...; secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia. The Soviet must select a strong nucleus for the provisional revolutionary government and reinforce it with representatives of all revolutionary parties and all revolutionary (but, of course, only revolutionary and not liberal) democrats."

Lenin’s positive orientation toward the trade unions and soviets in 1905 did not represent a change in his previous position on the vanguard party. On the contrary, the concept of the vanguard party presupposes and indeed requires very broad organizations through which the party can lead the mass of more backward workers. What Is To Be Done? states very clearly the relationship of the party to the trade unions:

"The workers’ organizations for the economic struggle should be trade-union organizations. Every Social-Democratic worker should as far as possible assist and actively work in these organizations. But, while this is true, it is certainly not in our interest to demand that only Social-Democrats should be eligible for membership in the ‘trade’ unions, since that would only narrow the scope of our influence upon the masses. Let every worker who understands the need to unite for the struggle against the employers and the government join the trade unions. The very aim of the trade unions would be impossible of achievement, if they did not unite all who have attained at least this elementary degree of understanding, if they were not very broad organizations. The broader these organizations, the broader will be our degree of influence over them." [emphasis in original]

Did Lenin Renounce What Is To Be Done?

Almost every rightist revisionist has zeroed in on Lenin’s fight for a mass recruitment policy and against apparatus conservatism to argue that the founder of contemporary communism abandoned the principles of What Is To Be Done? then and for all time. The British workerist-reformist Tony Cliff concludes that in 1905:

"On the idea that socialist consciousness could be brought in only from the ‘outside,’ and that the working class could spontaneously achieve only trade-union consciousness, Lenin now formulated his conclusion in terms which were the exact opposite of those of What Is To Be Done? In an article called ‘The Reorganization of the Party’ written in November 1905, he says bluntly: ‘The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic’."
—Op. cit.

Jean-Jacques Marie, a leader of the French neo-Kautskyan Organisation Communiste Internationaliste, says practically the same thing:

"Lenin abandoned the rigidity in the definition which he had given of the relationship between ‘consciousness’ and ‘spontaneity.’After the Second Congress (August 1903) he indicated that he had ‘forced the note’ or ‘took the stick bent by the Economists and bent it the other way.’ The 1905 Revolution could only force him to underline What Is To Be Done?’s historical function for a particular moment."
—introduction to Que Faire? (1966)

Because all manner of reformists and centrists exploit Lenin’s 1905 fight against apparatus conservatism for anti-Leninist purposes, it is extremely important to define precisely the issues of that dispute. What aspect or aspects of What Is To Be Done? did Lenin consider no longer relevant in 1905?

Lenin did not change his position on the relationship between consciousness and spontaneity. In 1905 and until his death, he maintained that the revolutionary vanguard party was uniquely the conscious expression of the historic interests of the proletariat. As we have pointed out, the April 1905 Bolshevik congress, where Lenin fought for a mass recruitment campaign, condemned the Mensheviks for "a general tendency to belittle the significance of consciousness, which they subordinate to spontaneity, in the proletarian struggle." Lenin did not regard the "young fighters" and would-be recruits of 1905 as more politically advanced than the conservative Bolshevik committeemen. On the contrary, he insisted that the knowledgeable, hardened committeemen could and should raise the subjectively revolutionary "young fighters" to their own level.

Lenin did not water down the party’s revolutionary program to attract more backward workers; he did not engage in demagogy. This is obvious from the passage quoted in "New Forces and New Tasks." He also did not believe that broad recruitment required a downgrading in the responsibility and discipline of membership. The April Bolshevik congress replaced the loose 1903 Martovite definition of membership with Lenin’s position on formal organizational participation. Nor did Lenin hold that the transformation of the Bolsheviks into a mass workers party should lead to a significant relaxation in organizational centralism. Throughout this period he reaffirmed his belief that centralism was a fundamental organizational principle of revolutionary social democracy. For example, in the article "The Jena Congress of the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party" (September 1905), he wrote:

"It is important that the highly characteristic feature of this revision [of the SPD rules] should be stressed, i.e., the tendency toward further, more comprehensive and stricter application of the principle of centralism, the establishment of a stronger organization....

"On the whole, this obviously shows that the growth of the Social-Democratic movement and of its revolutionary spirit necessarily and inevitably leads to the consistent establishment of centralism."

Building on the Foundations of What Is To Be Done?

In what way then did Lenin regard What Is To Be Done? as inapplicable to the tasks facing the Bolsheviks in 1905? In 1905 Lenin advocated a lowering of the hitherto normal level of political experience and knowledge required for recruitment and also for leadership responsibilities. And this change was not so much in Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party as in the consciousness of the Russian proletariat. In the underground conditions of 1902-03, only a small number of advanced workers would adhere to the revolutionary socialdemocratic program, risking imprisonment and exile, and accept the discipline of the newly formed and faction-ridden RSDRP. After Bloody Sunday tens of thousands of militant young workers and also radical petty bourgeois wanted to become revolutionary social democrats, insofar as they understood what this meant. Broad recruitment in 1902-03 would have smothered the revolutionary elements of the RSDRP under a mass of backward, Russian Orthodox, liberal-tsarist workers. In 1905, the solid Bolshevik cadre organization was capable of assimilating large numbers of radicalized, though politically raw, workers.

Lenin’s mass recruitment policy in 1905 was neither a repudiation nor a correction of the principles expressed in What Is To Be Done? but was based on their successful implementation. A necessary precondition for a broad recruitment campaign during a revolutionary crisis is a politically homogeneous cadre organization. And Lenin explicitly states this in a passage that Cliff himself quotes, but refuses to understand or is incapable of understanding:

"Danger may be said to lie in a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social-Democrats into the Party. If that occurred, the Party would be dissolved among the masses, it would cease to be the conscious vanguard of the class, its role would be reduced to that of a tail. That would mean a very deplorable period indeed. And this danger could undoubtedly become a very serious one if we showed any inclination towards demagogy, if we lacked party principles (program, tactical rules, organizational experience), or if those principles were feeble and shaky. But the fact is that no such ‘ifs’ exist.... [W]e have demanded class-consciousness from those joining the Party, we have insisted on the tremendous importance of continuity in the Party’s development, we have preached discipline and demanded that every Party member be trained in one or another of the Party organizations. We have a firmly established Party program which is officially recognized by all Social-Democrats and the fundamental propositions of which have not given rise to any criticism.... We have resolutions on tactics which were consistently worked out at the Second and Third Congresses and in the course of many years’ work of the Social-Democratic press. We also have some organizational experience and an actual organization, which has played an educational role and has undoubtedly borne fruit." [emphasis in original]
—"The Reorganization of the Party" (November 1905)

A weak propaganda group or small, heterogeneous party which opens its gates during a revolutionary upsurge will be swamped by immature, impressionistic, volatile elements who will lead that party to disaster. This is precisely what happened to the German Spartakusbund of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in 1918-19. Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1905 were able to avoid the tragic fate of the Spartakusbund because they had constructed an organization according to the principles of What Is To Be Done? for the previous five years.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks were in a sense swamped by their mass of radicalized recruits. Under the impact of the deepening revolution, the Menshevik leadership in effect split. Martov’s chief lieutenant, Theodore Dan, and Martynov (of all people) supported Trotsky’s campaign for a "workers government." Martov and Plekhanov adhered to the official Menshevik position of abstaining from the struggle for governmental power. Thus the revolution of 1905 found the two most authoritative figures of Menshevism isolated on the right wing of their own tendency.

It is doubtful that Lenin believed the large majority of those recruited in 1905 would remain Bolsheviks over the long haul, particularly if the revolution failed (as it did) and a period of reaction set in. But among those first drawn to revolutionary struggle in 1905, it was difficult to distinguish the genuinely advanced elements from the politically backward or deviant, the serious-minded revolutionaries from those simply caught up in the excitement of the moment. Only time and internal struggle would sort out the future Bolsheviks recruited during the revolution from the accidental accretions. During the revolution of 1905 the real Bolshevik Party remained the committeemen of the Iskra period: the new recruits were in effect candidate members.

Under normal conditions a revolutionary organization selects, educates and trains its members in good part before they join. This preparatory process often occurs through a transitional organization (e.g., women’s section, youth group, trade-union caucus). But during a revolutionary upsurge such a relatively lengthy pre-recruitment period may well deprive the vanguard party of some of the best young fighters who want to play a full political role through party participation. Given a sufficiently large and solid core cadre, the vanguard party should seek to recruit all the seemingly healthy elements who embrace the revolutionary Marxist program as best they understand it. The process of selection and education then takes place internally.

Mass recruitment during a revolution represents in extreme form a general characteristic of party growth and development. The transition from a propaganda circle to a mass workers party is not a uniform, linear process. Periods of rapid growth and expansion into new milieus are typically followed by a period of consolidation, marked by a certain inward turning, leading to the crystallization of a new layer of cadre.

In June 1907, Lenin brought out a collection of his major writings entitled Twelve Years. At this time the Bolsheviks were still a mass, legal organization with an estimated membership of 45,000. The victory of tsarist reaction had not yet reduced the Bolsheviks to a relatively small underground network. The condition of the Bolsheviks in early 1907 and the situation they faced were thus very different from the Iskraists of 1902-03.

Lenin therefore had to explain and emphasize the historical context and immediate factional purpose of What Is To Be Done? In his preface to Twelve Years, Lenin observes that

"The Economists had gone to one extreme. What Is To Be Done?, I said, straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists....

"The meaning of these words is clear enough: What Is To Be Done? is a controversial correction of Economist distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light."

Every rightist revisionist (e.g., Tony Cliff, J.-J. Marie) has leapt upon these few sentences, as if they were a dispensation from heaven, in order to claim that Lenin regarded What Is To Be Done? as an exaggerated and historically obsolete political statement. This is a fundamental distortion of Lenin’s meaning. What Is To Be Done? appeared one-sided in 1907 because it dealt with the crystallization of an agitational party composed of professional revolutionaries out of a loose movement of propaganda circles. The 1902 polemic did not deal with the transformation of such an agitational organization into a mass workers party, nor with the problems and tasks of a mass revolutionary party.

In the same preface to Twelve Years, Lenin asserts that building an organization of professional revolutionaries is a necessary stage in constructing a mass revolutionary proletarian party, of which they will be the vital hard core. He pointed out that the committeemen of the Iskra period formed the basis of all subsequent Bolshevik organizations:

"The question arises, who accomplished, who brought into being this superior unity, solidarity and stability of our Party. It was accomplished by the organization of professional revolutionaries, to the building of which Iskra made the greatest contribution. Anyone who knows our Party’s history well, anyone who has had a hand in building the Party, has but to glance at the delegate list of any of the groups at, say, the [1907] London Congress, in order to be convinced of this and notice at once that it is a list of the old membership, the central core that had worked hardest of all to build up the Party and make it what it is."




Posted: 15 April 2005